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August 27, 2019 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Old school episodes of Doctor Who everyone should watch. An old but still good article from 2012 that does what it says on the tin.

“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.” - Fourth Doctor, “Robot”

“Old school Doctor Who” is how those old episodes many of us watched on late night PBS here in America are now called. Yes, the sets are cheap and the special effects are laughable. But the stories — well, ok, the majority of them — still hold up.

Any others you think should be added to the list?
posted by zooropa (48 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The first part of An Unearthly Child is quite good, though I would recommend skipping the rest of the story as it gets a bit dull.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 11:24 AM on August 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I still remember watching the story that introduced the Daleks. They were a wastebin with some stuff stuck on. Like, it was blatantly obvious.

It was also one of the most terrifying things I've ever seen.

<3 old school Doctor Who
posted by kalimac at 11:28 AM on August 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

As a Tom Bakerist, I'd add Stones of Blood to the list.

+1 for City of Death. Looking for a clip, I came across this mashup...

City of death: Fake your beauty

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

For old-school Doctor Who you really have to lean into the slow pace. Either you can appreciate it and enjoy the old ones for what they are, or you can't. (Which is fine! Don't torture yourself if you don't like the molasses pacing, the cardboard sets, the questionable role of the "companion"--enjoy the new episodes that are great and more modern TV.)

But once you absorb the flaws of early Doctor Who, almost every serial has its charms.
posted by rikschell at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

If anyone is looking for classic Doctor Who podcasts (there are about 50000 of them), I can recommend the first 69-odd episodes of The Writers Room.

The hosts are both writers (although with no connection to DW) and they approach each episode from the direction of the script, its impact on the show, and what was going on behind the scenes during production. Episode 60 is particularly interesting, as they talk about Full Circle with the writer, Andrew Smith.
posted by AndrewStephens at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Eldrad must live!
posted by schoolgirl report at 11:58 AM on August 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

Paradise Towers. That's a Sylvester McCoy one. Looks like it's available on dailymotion.

Sylvester McCoy seems one of the least popular Doctors, but I've always found the episodes of his I came across intriguing. At the time NOBODY I ever came across had anything in the least good to say about Doctor Who, not in the media neither.

Saw the first episode of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy at the time, would definitely watch the whole thing if I could find it on the basis of visuals alone. And we didn't even have colour telly then! I liked Ace as well.

I have to say I hold Peter Davison, like Paul McGann, isn't actually part of the canon. But I disagree so much with the article as to what comprises classic Who.
posted by glasseyes at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think this article was written before the BBC found, restored, and released some of the second doctor's stuff...I highly recommend The Enemy of the World, where Patrick Troughton does double-duty as the Doctor and the evil Salamander.
posted by okayokayigive at 12:02 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Classic Who: quirky, thoughtful, unexpected, logical; shonky sets, effects and acting being basically an anti-glamour through which the worthy must endure to reach the delights within.
posted by glasseyes at 12:04 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

There's something to be said, as mentioned in the comments, for not trying to watch a whole serial back to back. Putting a few days between viewings eases some of the tedium.

The Two releases with animatic reconstructions for missing episodes within a serial work surprisingly well. Even for Tomb of the Cybermen!
posted by praemunire at 12:07 PM on August 27, 2019

Also, everybody loves City of Death, that's not even a hard one. I once commissioned a sketch for a charity fundraiser of the Doctor and Romana sailing down hand in hand from the Eiffel Tower.
posted by praemunire at 12:08 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have to say I hold Peter Davison, like Paul McGann, isn't actually part of the canon.

I feel attacked. #fifthdoctorbestdoctor

On that note, I'll recommend Logopolis/Castrovalva as a really amazing two-parter featuring both the 4th and the 5th Doctors. Christopher H. Bidmead bringing some high-concept sci-fi to the show and it works really well! Also, the DVD/Blu-ray commentaries with Peter Davison and his TARDIS crew are absolutely hilarious... the chemistry between the actors is delightful.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

There's a lot I love about Seven and Ace as Doctor and companion. It's been said elsewhere that these two can be viewed as an early blueprint for how NuWho structured its Doctor/companion relationship, and I personally buy that theory. It's very easy to go from Seven and Ace in their last season to Nine and Rose in their first.

Also, a lot of Seven episodes make more sense if you view them as comic books come to life. That sure as hell explains something like The Happiness Patrol, as ecstasy and the Second Summer Of Love only covers so much.

I have a sentimental spot for Tom Baker's last season, as the combination of his departure, the high-concept sci-fi from Christopher Bidmead, and the "we're so into the Eighties" aesthetic make for a unique combination of new and old, of decay and rebirth. It's not Tom's best season, or even the best season JNT put together, but for me it works. Also, the mindfuck of "Warriors' Gate" couldn't have happened at any other time.
posted by stannate at 12:33 PM on August 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

For old-school Doctor Who you really have to lean into the slow pace.

The cavemen are a whole different level of slow pace.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:40 PM on August 27, 2019

I am now watching Paradise Towers and loving it.
Bonnie Langford, poor woman! That'll be why I love Ace.
posted by glasseyes at 12:44 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Complaining about ramshackle special effects and dodgy plotting in classic Who is like complaining that a pantomime horse can't do better than fifth in a race.

It's a feature, not a bug.

(2 - 3 - 4 - 5 is proper Who. All else is counterfeit. I haven't seen enough of 1 or, probably, 2 to judge it adequately.)
posted by delfin at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite moments, because she just sums up how terribly a lot of the companions had it during this series is when Tegan says farewell and basically tells the Doctor that he's sometimes not that fun to adventure with.
posted by xingcat at 12:51 PM on August 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

For old-school Doctor Who you really have to lean into the slow pace.

Virtually glacial. With lots of dialogue. That said, the stories are much more appealing to me than, say, Season 3 of Greatest American Hero.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:04 PM on August 27, 2019

when Tegan says farewell and basically tells the Doctor that he's sometimes not that fun to adventure with.

They survived a Dalek encounter. A lot of good people they met died because of the Daleks.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:06 PM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I liked the few episodes I've seen of Two, but the key word is "few." I may need to see them again to fully let the plots sink in, partially because the black-and-white episodes have slow pacing to my eyes.

I used to recommend starting with Tom Baker for those getting into the old show. Nowadays, I've fully embraced a wibbly-wobbly order that favors how the modern show watcher would, in my opinion, embrace the older show. It's not quite a ranking from most to least watchable, but it's in the vicinity:


A good argument can be made to break apart Seven, as the Mel year is nowhere near as enjoyable as the two years with Ace. If you did that, you could move the Seven/Mel year after Six, as the two Colin Baker seasons and the first Sylvester McCoy season are really hard to stomach. I was someone who liked the theory of Six better than the reality, but after rewatching Six's mercifully brief run, I've more than soured on the theory.
posted by stannate at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is far from a popular opinion (or, at least, it wasn't when I was more active in the fandom) but my favorite serial is Ghostlight and I feel like it has a lot to offer even folks who haven't watched Doctor Who before.*

I mean, yeah, it's confusing on the first viewing but being something that requires careful attention isn't necessarily bad. The atmosphere is delightfully creepy, there's layers and layers of weird surreal stuff going on, there's some very funny and some very touching scenes, and Seven and Ace are fucking great throughout.

In conclusion, please watch Ghostlight.

*I should perhaps preface this opinion with the fact that I like stuff that's slow and surreal and doesn't provide neat answers and am also a huge fan of Sapphire & Steel so, y'know, that's where I'm coming from.
posted by darchildre at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

I have trouble with most of the Pertwee stuff on the list, although the one with the Sontaran is pretty good.

All the Tom Baker ones recommended are great. The Ark in Space is the plot to Alien, released several years earlier, and with better sci-fi concepts (And special effects like a guy with green bubble wrap on his hand.. Scared the bajeezus out of me, but I was 7.)

It's been many years since I've seen it, but I'd add the Patrick Troughton era The Dominators which has some great comedy in addition to an above average (for the time) plot and writing.
posted by mark k at 1:14 PM on August 27, 2019

Report from 2 episodes in of Paradise Towers.
When I watched it first Sylvester McCoy seemed quite old. Now he seems quite young.
Richard Briers!! (always a good villain.) Judy Cornwell!! Howard Cooke! (:-( poor man) One of the Cusacks!
darchildre I shall have a look for Ghostlight on your say so.

mark k, imo the Pertwee episodes are greatly improved after having watched Worzel Gummidge and overlaying one over the other.
posted by glasseyes at 1:23 PM on August 27, 2019

Pluto tv has a Doctor Who channel where they show various episodes. Third Doctor's Terror of the Autons is just as scary as I remember it being as a kid.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:25 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Brain of Morbius scared the bejeezus out of me as a wee kiddie and probably still would.

Condo and his stolen hand? Sarah losing and regaining her vision? The very premise of needing to obtain a head? A HEAD?!?! From someone who is still using it?!?!?

Yep....still terrifying.
posted by biscotti at 2:23 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Recently watched a lot of the classic Dr Who's with my partner and wow does Pertwee not hold up (but Liz Shaw is a great companion for the era). Tom Baker, thank god, is every bit as good as I remembered.
posted by aspo at 2:27 PM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

I had pretty much seen Tom Baker as the Doctor when our local PBS station started Showing Sylvester McCoy episodes. Such a different take, and Ace was also fairly different. Still one of my favorite Doctors.
posted by Windopaene at 2:31 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I must have been ten or eleven when I first flipped my television to UHF 28 and caught the first episode of Earthshock. The constantly-shifting mad-cap pace of that episode promised me a rollicking adventure series that never quite bore out, but I was hooked.

I remember Mawdryn Undead attatching itself to my brain-stem through sheer atmosphere alone. A haunting time travel story with a cursed 80s Art Deco luxury liner.

I was still catching up with McCoy's final season when I heard that the whole party was over. They were selling off the sets and giving up. But the stations looped back around and started showing the earliest copies they had and I got to float through the 60s and 70s with them. My love of Dr. Who was seen as thoroughly déclassée by my classmates, and it was one of the things that kept me a nerdy outsider.

I remember being disappointed by the McGann film, but not wanting to admit it to myself. I nearly chucked my laptop off my sofa when I thought I saw Christopher Eccleston deride Mickey as "a Domestic", thinking he had assumed the black man was a domestic servant (It was a cultural mistranslation, though: he just didn't appreciate the domestic squabbles between Mickey and Rose!).

In Moffat's first story, he made reference to a "Chula Warship", and when I moved to Hammersmith I wondered if it had any connection to the mediocre curry place on King Street. It turns out that's where the "Operation Torchwood" team used to meet to plan out "New Who", "torchwood" just being an anagram of "Doctor Who". They'd made a pact to give some prize to the first scriptwriter to work the restaurant into a script.

It closed a few years later, and really kind of deserved it. If you're ever in Hammersmith, be sure to eat at Sagar instead!

But Earthshock is still a fun story.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:37 PM on August 27, 2019

The astonishing thing about Tom Baker is that for all his reputation as a self-centred drunkard on set, on the screen he is a selfless cannon of viewer attention. He's remembered for his capering and buffoonery, but whenever someone else had a line, his fierce gaze would send you captivated to whomever was delivering it.

Just watch The Horror of Fang Rock some time, and notice how in such a claustrophobic setting he managed to animate so much energy toward his fellow actors. He'd drop to his knees, eyes wide and jaw slackened, to hear a young actress's lines. And his booming whispered "What‽" of incredulity would have you holding your breath to find out what she'd say next.

I'm just glad I never met the man. He seemed like rather a jerk.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:41 PM on August 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

(Oh also Jon Pertwee totally hit on my cousin's mother once)
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:42 PM on August 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Tom Baker had, I think, just been in Pasolini's Canterbury Tales before he got the Doctor Who gig. He was not yet established but had for all that a serious professional reputation.

So Paradise Towers, which I've finished watching now, had in it as well as those I recognised, the following actors: Brenda Bruce; Elizabeth Spriggs; Clive Merrison. That's class.

It was funny, scary, hokey and camp, always bearing in mind that this was children's television and thus mostly limited to being scary by suggestion, not by grue. But what terrifying and speculative suggestions. Nazism as the culmination of a jobsworthian systematised authoritarianism. Hollowed-out beings animated by furiously malevolent forces of high intelligence. The anti-social nature of elitism. Richard Briers uncannily anticipating Edgar the bug ten years before Men in Black. My favorite thing in it though, is the playing with constructed language, idiom and ritual.

I'm really glad to have had the nudge to watch it again. And oh my god, it was so long ago that Pex was just some kind of neutral name, not calling attention to anything mockingly. I mean to me. Maybe not to the writers.
posted by glasseyes at 3:18 PM on August 27, 2019

OK. How did The Key To Time story arc not make it fun on there?

I had a deeeeep Doctor Who watching period when Netflix first appearance happened to coincide with becoming a major pothead. I concur with most of that linked list. Although my one true Doctor is Tom Baker and I see all others as regenerations of him.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 3:28 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

But Earthshock is still a fun story.

It was more fun before YouTube deleted the version with the laugh track over the ending.
posted by delfin at 4:17 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Solid enough list. Edge of destruction is an interesting choice for the Hartnell era. It is almost Brechtian but very unlike what followed. I assume it was chosen because it was short. I'm partial to the the Massacre or maybe the Romans but I like the ropy ones like Galaxy Four and Space Museum (where Barbara's cardigan is used to destroy a Dalek which I think is much cooler than a bat). There's a lot of inventiveness to them.

A few years ago I watched all the classic Who, and you do need to realign your brain to watch it. It works fundamentally differently then TV does now - not necessarily better or worse just different. Something also helpful to do is to read about about the era when episodes were broadcast - often the show is responding to the zeitgeist which can be hard for younger and non-British eyes to recognise or understand. When I watched them I read along with each episode in the About Time books from Mad Norwegian Press which delves into a lot the behind the scenes stuff as well as what was happening at that time. It does fill out the story quite a bit. I also picked up a few of the Target novelizations which, at least some of the better ones, actually help create more depth to the serials. For example, the novelization for the recommended Doctor and the Silurians (called Doctor Who and the cave monsters) gives the Silurians way more depth as characters (and a back story!).
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:04 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Something so amusing about trying to follow the doctor in some sort of Chronological order.
posted by nickggully at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

My introduction to Doctor Who was Happiness Patrol---or more accurately, the last few minutes of Happiness Patrol. I caught it by chance on PBS one night in seventh grade and was hooked. It was just so perfectly strange and different from anything else I'd seen! Tom Baker is a better actor than McCoy, and Baker benefited from a much better ratio of good:bad scripts, but Seven is still my favorite. His parting speech to Mel and his half-sinister exchange with Ace on the things he hates (bus stations, burnt toast, unrequited love, and tyranny, cruelty) in the wonderful Gothic mess that is Ghostlight define the character for me.

I also love the Seventh Doctor's complete rejection of the action-heroism of Three and occasionally Four, something which he presents as nonviolence. I suspect the writers saw it as nonviolence, too, but the nature of the show allows recontextualizations like Ten's condemnation of Seven in the End of Time ("It's not like I'm an innocent. I've taken lives. I got worse. I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.") that enrich both incarnations of the character.

I think I may go rewatch Happiness Patrol.
posted by This time is different. at 5:27 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Another Tom Bakerist checking in. The episodes recommended for #4 include all but one of my favorites (The Horns of Nimon is the absent one). I didn't think The Key to Time was particularly good, but Mary Tamm is definitely a better Romana than Lalla Ward.
posted by Slothrup at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2019

It's a good list. The only two I would add are two that don't exist anymore (although an animated reconstruction of one is coming in the next year).

The absolute best First Doctor story is, hands down, Marco Polo. You can find the Loose Canon reconstruction on DailyMotion, and it is just spectacular. If I could wave a magic wand and make just one lost story reappear, that would be it. It is everything that Doctor Who is supposed to be, a grand educational story about an exotic (for westerners) time and place with thrills, chills, adventure, and drama. The surviving color photos of the story are just stunning.

My other pick is The Faceless Ones, which is just the right amount of creepy. I have high hopes for the animated reconstruction, I hope they do it justice. Patrick Troughton is easily my favorite Doctor, and Jamie is the second best companion of all time. But yes, as noted above, Enemy of the World is also spectacularly good and should be on this list.
posted by Lokheed at 7:10 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Something so amusing about trying to follow the doctor in some sort of Chronological order.

That's a point I don't see often enough. It's a show about TIME TRAVEL. The very idea off a viewing order is a joke.
posted by mikelieman at 11:08 PM on August 27, 2019

Not only is a viewing order a bit of a joke, I'd argue and I know this is controversial for some people, continuity is just about pointless in the show. Anytime Nuwho gets overly precious about maintaining continuity the stories always stink. The other argument that gets heated is whether the show is science fiction or fantasy. I always say pour quoi pas les deux.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:47 AM on August 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Continuity is not especially useful or important within the show's narrative, but most Classic Who fans are also interested in the meta-narrative about the show itself, and for that viewing order is relevant. We like to see the evolution of what the Doctor is, what a Time Lord is, how the writing reflected the zeitgeist, all that kind of stuff.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:13 AM on August 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

By viewing order I don't mean production or broadcast order but the desire from some fans to watch the show in the "chronological order" of the serials as if they were intended to have an internally consistent continuity. So for instance, some fans insist that you have to watch say all the Dalek serials in a specific way - Genesis first, then the Daleks, the middle ones in all kinds of random order but with Power of the Daleks always last. The show wasn't written with continuity in mind so trying to shoe horn it into some kind of logical continuity is a distraction from the show. Watching it in the broadcast order I think will give you the meta narrative as well as flavour of the time. Or in blocks organised by the specific showrunners and stars.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2019

Tom Baker was my first Doctor. I was hooked from "Robot," though honestly the line that hooked me was spoken by the Brigadier:

"Just once, I'd like to meet an alien menace that WASN'T IMMUNE TO BULLETS."

Reader, I laughed heartily, and remembered it. I still say it whenever I see a movie where Our Heroes are firing useless bullets at some monster.
posted by Archer25 at 11:47 AM on August 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Archer25! Chap with wings. Five rounds rapid!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:17 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Ark in Space ... I'm not sure I'd dare watch it. I read the novelisation from the library as a child, and then needed to sleep with the lights on for quite some time.

My Doctor was Five; I'm pretty sure my first episode was The Five Doctors, for maximum confusion value. The one that terrified six-year-old me was The Awakening, with the vast, evil face of the Malus emerging from an innocuous wall. I felt almost picked on when the BBC chose to repeat just that specific adventure, later on in the year.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:42 AM on August 29, 2019

The show wasn't written with continuity in mind so trying to shoe horn it into some kind of logical continuity is a distraction from the show.

I once came across a web site (it probably still exists) that attempted to create a universal timeline for events from all forms of Doctor Who media - TV, novelizations, audio dramas, comics - and it was breathtaking in its intricately color-coded and almost infinite verticality but also felt like staring too long at it invited a dangerous madness to take hold.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:16 AM on August 29, 2019

felt like staring too long at it invited a dangerous madness to take hold

Oh so you've met Doctor Who fans?
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:50 AM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Fans of Dr. Who that lived through The Wilderness Years will recall that the grand timeline book in the 90s was titled "The Discontinuity Guide".

This was a cunning jape! For, you see, the show had been discontinued. Also, continuity in a show about time travel was folly!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:19 PM on August 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

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